Overview of Cosmology in the Scriptures

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Cosmological Refections in Ancient Indian Literature Rita Roy Chowdhury (May 2008 (308)

The details in which the Puranic literature abounds are not mere play of an idle imagi- nation. On the contrary, they refect deep contemplation and keen observation of the phe- nomena of the world. Te Puranic thinkers had their feet frmly established on the ground, in the world of experience, and this formed the basis of their philosophical analysis. Tis is their merit and their distinction. To justify the claim that Puranic cosmology is not mere imaginative speculation, but contains elements revealing their scientifc and ra-tional attitude, is the main objective of this article. Cosmology, according to contemporary lexi-cographers, is ‘the science of the origin and devel-opment of the universe’.1 Te Puranic sense of the term deviates from this accepted meaning: it is the threefold study of the creation of the universe, its destruction, and its re-creation (sarga-pratisarga). Puranic thinkers were aware of a cyclic movement in nature. Tey confronted the intriguing question of creation keeping the dynamic nature of the universe in mind. In the Bhagavata, Narada inquires, ‘My Lord, kindly tell me the truth about this universe, what its characteristics are, on what it is supported, by whom it has been created, where it ultimately rests, by what power it is ruled, and what it essen-tially is.’2 Narada voices the query of any ordinary, inquisitive person who naturally yearns to under-stand the universe and his or her place within it.Puranic cosmological study is not a sudden or disconnected inquiry. It is founded on a continu-ity of contemplation that has given us fve thou-sand years of history. Te Puranas share a common platform with the Vedas and the Upanishads, and can best be understood when studied in associa-tion with the cosmological theories advocated by them. Besides, this approach will justify our claim to legacy. Terefore, we will begin our discussion with the explanations of the Vedas and Upanishads, comparing them with cosmogenetic theories of some other ancient civilizations to map similarity of thought across the globe. Vedic Cosmology Te Vedic philosophers were frm believers in the theory of causality. If everything has a cause, then, ‘Who hath beheld him as he sprang to being, seen how the boneless One supports the bony? Where is the blood of earth, the life, the spirit?’3 Where is the cause of the universe? What is the power or force that has coordinated this complex state of af-fairs? Te Vedic seers viewed creation not as a new beginning, but as an arrangement and organization of all that lay in chaos. To bring harmony into the disorganized morass is Creation. Te pre-Creation state is described in the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ thus: There was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.… no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. …Darkness there was: at frst concealed in dark-ness this all was indiscriminated chaos.All that existed then was void and formless.

 (10.129.1–3)

To bring order and harmony to the chaotic mass was the task of Vishwakarma, ‘the Sole God, pro-ducing earth and heaven’—‘Dhātar, the great Crea-tor … [who] formed in order Heaven and Earth, the regions of the air, and light’ (10.81.3, 190.3).It seems highly signifcant that a similar unde-fned pre-Creation state of the universe is described in Egyptian cosmology: ‘Not yet was the heaven, not yet the earth, men were not, not yet born were —No bleed here— . the gods, not yet was death.’4 In ancient Greece, this initial formless state of the niverse was re-ferred to as ‘chaos’. According to the ancient Egyp-tians, in the beginning only the ocean existed, upon which there appeared an egg, out of which issued the sun-god. He who governed the world, He alone kept it in good order, and He alone had created it. Not that He had evoked it out of nothing; there was no concept of nothingness as yet, and even to the most primitive theologians, creation was only a bringing of pre-existent elements into play. The latent germs of things were already in existence, in timeless sleep in the bosom of the dark waters. We fnd a similar description in the Rig Veda: What was the germ primeval which the waters re-ceived where all the Gods were seen together? Te waters, they received that germ primeval wherein the Gods were gathered all together. It rested set upon the Unborn’s navel, that One wherein abide all things existing.’5 Te Creator, as Hiranyagarbha, arose from the great waters and by his power and energy germi-nated the egg containing the world matter, thus set-ting in motion the process of Creation. From this standpoint, Creation was not a new beginning but a rearrangement, setting things in a proper order. The Vedic philosophers found a unique way to relate the Creator and the created. Creation is actu-ally the manifestation of the Purusha, the frst cause, in all things living and non-living. How did he do it? By becoming the object of sacrifce: This Puruṣa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be …So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Puruṣa. All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven. With three-fourths, Puruṣa went up: one-fourth of him again was here. Thence he strode out to every side over what eats not and what eats. From him Virāj was born; again Puruṣa from Virāj was born. As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth. When Gods prepared the sacrifce with Puruṣa as their ofering, … They balmed as victim on the grass Puruṣa born in earliest time (10.90.2–7). The ‘Purusha Sukta’, as this hymn is known, de-scribes how all things and beings of the universe come from this sacrifce, and are none other than the Purusha himself. Tis signifcant observation helps to explain how the similar and dissimilar ob-jects of nature have a common origin. ‘From that great general sacrifce the dripping fat was gath- ered up. He formed the creatures of the air, and animals both wild and tame’ (10.90.8). It is inter-esting to note the attempt to harmonize our physi-cal and intellectual realms at their very source. Flavoured by pantheism, the ‘Purusha Sukta’ at-tempts a pragmatic explanation of Creation. As I have already mentioned, the patterns of hu-man thought appear similar through the ages. In Nordic mythology, Ymir, the cosmic world-giant, came into existence; from his body was made the world: From the fesh of Ymir the world was formed, From his bones were mountains made, And Heaven from the skull of that frost-cold giant, From his blood the billows of the sea.6 The emphasis is on transformation, not on forma-tion. What is, is rearranged; nothing is added or subtracted. Trough this is explained the natural balance of nature and the universal recycling proc-ess. Science calls it ‘conservation of energy’. We see such transformation everywhere in nature: when the fower unfolds, the bud disappears, and the egg breaks to make way for the chick. Likewise, in the process of Creation, ‘Ye will not fnd him who pro-duced these creatures: another thing hath risen up among you.’7 Te Purusha permeates the whole of nature: The moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth; Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vāyu from his breath’ (10.90.13). The world vibrates with his presence. The Creator secures steadfast all that is, by his law, ṛta. He re-mains beyond all change. T is Being who is past, present, and future (what has been and what shall be) the Upanishads termed Brahman. Upanishadic Cosmology T e cosmology of the Upanishads revolves around Brahman, the Supreme Soul, the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. ‘He is the womb of living beings and the end of living beings.’8 Brah-man willed, ‘I shall multiply and be born.’9 For this, Prajapati, the Lord of all creatures, produced two instrumental causes, matter and life, with the intention that they would multiply in manifold ways.10 The Upanishad explains the origin of all beings: ‘T hat in truth out of which hese creatures arise, whereby they, having arisen live, and into which they at death return again, that seek thou to know, that is Brahman.’11 Again, the simile of a cosmic ‘egg’, which ‘hatches’ the universe, is used to de-scribe the process of creation.12 Creation then becomes a threefold event—from the principal cause, through the cosmic egg, to the primary evolutes. T ese evolutes—earth, water, f re, air, and space, with their specif c functions—are eternal and combine according to their nature to produce this world of variety in accordance with divine law. The source of law or ṛta—Brahman—is also the Virat Purusha, the material cause. How do the ancient thinkers relate the Creator to his Creation? Identity: the Creation is a ref ection of Brahman. T e moon is ref ected in the water and breaks into fragments when there is a ripple; it is the same with Brahman. Imagine the ref ection of the moon without the moon! It is impossible. Similarly, without Brahman, there is no Creation. To say that the primeval Being created the universe and then as the f rst-born entered into it, is only another way of saying that the Creator permeates the Creation, as a lump of salt dissolves in a glass of water, as blood runs through the whole body and is the support of life. T he ancient seers specially remarked on the cy-clic order of natural events. T eir meticulous ob-servation of natural phenomena attests to their scientif c and logical temperament. Whatever is created in time cannot be eternal. Consequently the universe, which was created in time (in a par-ticular kalpa or cosmic era), will have an end in time. Its dissolution is not annihilation but disper-sion: the basic elements remain unaltered, being parts of the divine Purusha, of Brahman. Th ey are drawn back to the heart of Reality by a centripetal force, only to be set in motion once again. ‘At the end of a cycle all beings, O son of Kunti, enter into my nature; again, at the beginning of the cycle I bring them forth


Purusha and Prakriti Samkhya philosophers divide Reality into two ever-separate principles: Purusha and Prakriti, pure Spirit and nature or matter. Tey hold that Crea-tion is a process of real pariṇāma or transforma-tion of the cause: Purusha is the efcient cause, and Prakriti the material cause of the universe. Purusha neither produces nor is produced. Prakriti is also eternal and uncaused, but it has the inherent po-tential or tendency to produce; indeed, it produces the universe, in proximity to Purusha. Purusha (like Brahman of the Vedanta) is the transcendental Self. It is absolute, independent, free, impercepti-ble, and unknowable—above any experience and beyond any words or explanation. It is pure, ‘non- attributive consciousness’. Prakriti is the material cause of the world; its dynamism is attributed to its constituent guṇas. Te guṇas (sattva, rajas, and tamas) are not mere constituents or simply qualities: the guṇas are the very essence of Prakriti, and in consequence, of all world objects. Prakriti is considered homogeneous; its guṇas cannot be separated one from another. Tough the guṇas are always changing, render-ing a dynamic character to Prakriti, still a balance among them is maintained. Change in the guṇas may take two forms: homogeneous and heteroge-neous. Homogeneous changes do not afect Prakri- ti’s state of equilibrium, and no worldly objects are produced. Heterogeneous changes involve radical interaction among the three guṇas, disturbing the state of equilibrium. Tis preliminary phase of the evolutionary process is initiated by rajas, which ac-tivates sattva; these two then overpower the inertia of tamas. Purusha is always behind this disturbance. Te relation between Purusha and Prakriti may be likened to that between a magnet and a piece of iron. Tough Purusha is entirely independent of Prakriti, it nevertheless infuences Prakriti, prompts it, as it were, to act. As the guṇas undergo more and more changes, Prakriti goes on diferentiating into multifarious world-objects, becoming more and more determinate. Tis is the process of evolution, which is followed by involution. At the time of in-volution or dissolution, all physical existence and all world-objects resolve back into Prakriti, which again abides as the undiferentiated, primordial substance. Tus the cycles of evolution and involu-tion follow each other. Tis Samkhya conception forms the background of Puranic cosmology. Puranic Cosmology Puranic cosmology follows vivartavāda, the theory of ‘apparent transformation’: ‘Know that the Prākṛta (the creation of Prakṛti) is the Vivarta (transforma-tion) (of Brahman).’14 Te Puranic description of the cycle of creation-dissolution-recreation is note-worthy: it is here that the Puranas no longer remain mere folklore but rise to the level of intellectual discourse. Creation or sṛṣṭi is a vibration within the root cause which results in the sprouting forth of this world. As in the Vedas as well as Egyptian cosmology, the Puranas also refer to a ‘golden egg’, Hiranyagarbha, from which the universe emerges. Since Creation is evolution—a change of form, a manifestation of that which lay nascent—it must have been contained within something like a womb. What could that be? A projection of Brahman or an evolute of Prakriti in proximity to Purusha? An- other question associated with this creative activ-ity is, ‘Why did he create?’ Addressing the second question, the Brahmanda Purana observes, ‘With a desire to create he who is beyond measures, creates the great Creation’ (1.1.3.16). Desire is accounted as the motive force. It is through desire that we strive to achieve. Tis psychological element in Puranic cosmology seems signifcant and adds a distinct favour to the Puranas, bringing them in line with the Upanishads. Compare with the hymn to Aten from ancient Egypt: ‘Tou sole God, like to whom there is no other, thou didst create the earth afer thy heart, being alone.’ The Brahmanda Purana describes the cosmic egg, the aṇḍa: These seven worlds are well established in this cos-mic egg; the whole earth along with the seven continents, the seven oceans, the great mountains and thousands of rivers are established in the very same cosmic egg. Tese worlds are situated within (the cosmic egg). Tis universe is within the cos-mos. Everything is established in that cosmic egg—viz. the moon and the sun along with the stars, planets and the wind as well as the moun- tain Lokāloka.16

As  in the Vedas, so  in the Puranas, Hiranya-garbha is lauded here by the sūta Romaharshana: 

‘I bow down to Hiraṇyagarbha, the lordly Puruṣa who is unborn, who is the frst creator of subjects, who is the most excellent one, through whom the Kalpa has been competent to have its characteris-tics; through whom the fre has been capable of being a purifying factor; and who is the self-born Brahmā administering all the worlds’ (1.1.3.5–6). Tis conception brings to mind the biblical story of the ark of Noah, which carried all species of life during the deluge. As all life in the natural world appeared to the ancient sages to begin either in an egg or from a seed, the sages could have inferred the visible world to be likewise springing forth from an egg. Te egg with its spherical shape, hol-low and moist interior (resembling the womb), and hard shell, could carry and protect the germs of the previous kalpa afer dissolution for the subse-quent creation of the following kalpa. Seven lay-ers covered it, seven natural envelopes—āpa, tejas, vāyu, nabhas, bhūtādi, mahat, and pradhāna. Te cosmic egg can also be seen as the sun (hiraṇya = gold), the golden disk, also worshipped in Egypt as the source of all life—and scientifcally so. In the hymn to Aten, the sun-god, the young king Akhen-aten prays: ‘O living Aton [sic], Beginning of life! When thou risest in the eastern horizon, thou fll-est every land with thy beauty.’ He further suppli-cates: ‘Tou art he who createst the man-child in woman, Who makest seed in man, Who giveth life to the son in the body of his mother … Who givest breath to animate every one that He maketh.’17 The mechanism of creation has been elaborated in the Brahmanda Purana as some sort of activity or movement which stirs the guṇas from their dor-mant state. Te guṇas lose their equilibrium and the cycle restarts. Time (kāla) plays a signifcant role in creation and destruction. Time is eternal: ‘Te deity as Time is without beginning, and his end is not known; and from him the revolutions of creation, continuance and dissolution uninter-mittingly succeed.’18 Creation thus involves two factors, or forces, or partners. Te Vishnu Purana names ‘Hari’ the instrumental cause and the cosmic egg the mate-rial cause; the Agni Purana calls the instrumental cause Vishnu, the Brahmanda Purana, Brahma. ‘It is that acintyātman incomprehensible soul) who is the maker of all living beings. Tey (the learned) say that the Vedas are his head; the frmament is his navel; the sun and the moon are his eyes; the quar- ters are his ears, know that the earth constitutes his feet.’19 Here again the Purana reverts to the Vedic concept of the cosmic Purusha, whose immanence is clearly the most consistent characteristic of Indic cosmological conceptions. References

1.	 New Oxford Dictionary of English	(Oxford,	1999).
2.	 Bhagavata,	2.5.2.
3.	 Rig	Veda,	1.164.4,	from	Ralph	T	H	Grifth,	Te 

Hymns of the Rig Veda (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976), 110. Te translations of other Rig Vedic verses in the text are also from Te Hymns.

4.	 G	Maspero,	Te Dawn of Civilization: Egypt and 

Chaldaea (London: SPCK, 1892), 141.

5.	 Rig	Veda,	10.82.5–7,	from	Hymns,	592.
6.	 Donald	A	Mackenzie,	Myths  of Pre-Columbian 

America (New York: Dover, 1996), 168.

7.	 Rig	Veda,	10.82.7,	from	Hymns,	592.
8.	 Mandukya Upanishad,	6.
9.	 Chhandogya Upanishad,	6.2.3.

10. Prashna Upanishad, 1.4. 11. Taittiriya Upanishad, 3.1. 12. Chhandogya Upanishad, 3.19.1–3. 13. Bhagavadgita, 9.7. 14. Brahmanda Purana, trans. and ed. G V Tagare (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000), 1.1.3.24. 15. Allen H Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (New York: Oxford, 1961), 225. 16. Brahmanda Purana, 1.1.3.29–31. 17. James Henry Breasted, A History of Ancient Egyp- tians (London: John Murray, 1908), 273. 18. Vishnu Purana, trans. H H Wilson, 1.2.18. 19. Brahmanda Purana, 1.1.5.107–8.